A scientist’s unlikely path, with Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth

By Robin Smith

Many scientists have an inkling of their path at an early age, having spent their childhoods breeding hamsters for fun, or conducting backyard experiments on earthworms.

Not so for Duke Provost and cell biologist Sally Kornbluth.

Provost Sally Kornbluth delivers her lecture, "What Makes Me a Scientist," at Love Auditorium.

Provost Sally Kornbluth delivers her lecture, “What Makes Me a Scientist,” at Love Auditorium.

“Science wasn’t a part of my upbringing at all,” said Kornbluth, who grew up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, a small suburb 25 miles outside of New York City. Her mother was an opera singer.

“My mother once played Queen Elizabeth at the Metropolitan Opera. I can tell you she certainly wouldn’t have let us bring something like a worm or a hamster into the house.”

In an October 30 talk hosted by the Duke BioCoRE program, Kornbluth shared this story and the unlikely path she took to becoming a scientist and the lessons she learned along the way.

As an undergraduate at Williams College, Kornbluth majored in political science. She remembers leading a tour group through the science quad as a freshman tour guide and thinking, “I’ll never take a class here.”

“The only reason I signed up for my first science course — a class on human biology and social issues taught by a professor named Bill DeWitt — was I thought it would be a relatively painless way to satisfy the graduation requirements,” she said.

Things changed once she started the course. “That’s when I realized, wow, science is about asking interesting questions and solving puzzles and finding out how things work. Having a set of facts was only the starting point.”

She describes DeWitt as the best teacher she’s ever had. “The impact of teachers who influenced me along the way was really profound,” she said.

After graduating from college in 1982 she considered applying to medical school. But then she received a scholarship to go to Cambridge University in England for two years, where she earned a second bachelor’s degree in genetics.

148814_provstlec010“One of the formative things about that time was we were forced to read a lot of journal articles. The science textbooks I’d read gave the impression that experiments always work so cleanly and beautifully. But reading scientific papers helped me realize that things aren’t as neat, and not everyone agrees with each other.”

She also learned a lesson about remembering the big picture.

“Especially if you’re doing experiments that are long and involved, you have to be motivated by the idea behind the experiment, not by the actual physical things you’re doing every day,  because often they’re pretty mundane. When you’re doing lab work in molecular biology it’s hard to get excited about doing one hundred mini-preps.”

Kornbluth took these lessons with her to graduate school. She earned a Ph.D. in molecular oncology from Rockefeller University in 1989, and did postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Diego.

She joined the Duke faculty in 1994, along with her husband, Daniel Lew, Ph.D., both as professors of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke Medicine.

“We got lucky because we both worked on aspects of the cell cycle, which was a super hot field at the time,” she said.

Her recent research aims to identify the molecular signals that tell tumor cells to divide or die, which may help explain why some cancers fail to respond to chemotherapy. The work could point to new ways of overcoming drug resistance in breast, pancreatic and other cancers.

For Kornbluth, one of the biggest joys of being a scientist is the camaraderie and the collaborative nature of the work. “Maybe that’s why I went into administration,” she says.

Kornbluth served as vice dean for basic science at Duke Medicine from 2006 to 2014.

This June, she succeeded 15-year-veteran Peter Lange as provost, the chief academic officer at Duke. She is the first woman to hold the post.

148814_provstlec015

 

 

Rationing is Not a Four-Letter Word

Wasserman Globe cartoon

Palin and “Death Panels” cartoon from the Boston Globe.

By Nonie Arora

Starting with a news clip of Sarah Palin talking about death panels on Fox News is a sure-fire way to gain the attention of your audience. That’s exactly what Dr. Phillip Rosoff did to ease into his more serious talk about the ethics of rationing health care in the United States. He spoke to a crowded audience of clinicians, ethicists, and students for the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, & History of Medicine lecture series.

210_RosoffPhilip2011

Dr. Philip Rosoff. Source: pediatrics.duke.edu

Dr. Rosoff discussed both moral and economic reasons why we need to ration healthcare in the United States. For one, health care costs are bankrupting the nation and taking money from other social goods. According to Dr. Rosoff, our health care system is expensive, inefficient and has astounding disparities in access to quality care.

“Health care is not the only good. Other factors contribute to our ability to live a good life, including education and the arts,” he said.

“The key to rationing isn’t saying ‘no,’ but how it’s done,” he said.

He unveiled his vision for a better model of health care. In his eyes, a single-payer system that would eliminate the centralized profit motive – where physicians and hospitals have the perverse financial incentives to sell things – would decrease costs without compromising quality. He believes that a similar, expansive, generous benefit plan should be available to all, and those who make the rules ought to be bound by them. Problems arise when people make decisions for others without being affected by the outcomes, Dr. Rosoff explained.

He referenced the organ transplant waiting list, UNOS, as an accepted system where most patients do not complain about bias or unfairness because they realize that everyone has been given a fair shot. The same should be true of our reformed health care system: there should be no “VIPs” or “VUPS” (very unimportant people) and steps ought to be taken to ensure that everyone with a similar clinical prognosis should be bound by the same rules.

While it may seem impossible to increase coverage while lowering costs, other countries provide high quality care at a fraction of the cost, Rosoff explained. Twenty five percent of our spending in the U.S. goes towards unnecessary treatments or administrative expenses.

When asked what the rallying cry for such a major change in the health care system would be, Dr. Rosoff said that the system as it is will bankrupt us, so changes need to be made. At the same time, we need to avoid evoking the scarcity principle, drawing as little attention as possible to changes being made, he concluded.

Learn more specifics about the ethical principles underlying the rationing of healthcare in Dr. Rosoff’s latest book: Rationing is Not A Four-Letter Word: Setting Limits on Healthcare (Published by Basic Bioethics)

Joining the ride – Thabit Pulak

By Thabit Pulak

Howdy everyone! My name is Thabit Pulak, and I am currently a freshman, hailing from the grand nation of Texas! Although I haven’t declared my major yet, I am interested in Public Policy, and Medicine.

My first arsenic filters -- fresh from the factory!

My first batch of custom-made  water filters, fresh from the manufacturing plant in Bangladesh!

I’ve been interested in science ever since I was really young. As I got older, I became more aware of my surroundings. Ethnically, I am from Bangladesh, which is a poverty-stricken nation. Amongst the many problems the country faces, one that personally caught my eye was that of arsenic water poisoning, which affects nearly 70 million people in Bangladesh, and about 300 million people across the world. Continually drinking arsenic-tainted water results in arsenicosis, which is a chronic state of arsenic poisoning that gradually develops into various types of bodily cancers. So I thought, if exposure to arsenic was reduced, then the incidence of cancer would decrease as well.

Studying the issue closer, I noticed that solutions for filtering arsenic from water did exist, but they were very expensive (nearly $70) for the average villager, who makes around $1 a day. This was definitely a problem, as what good use was a solution, which was financially inaccessible to the target audience?

My meeting with the Minister of Bangladesh

I started to delve into this problem, trying to figure out what I could do. I read research articles on how other filters on the market worked. I noticed that the technologies used in other filters were plagued with various problems that brought cost up, such as being patented, or technologies not available natively in Bangladesh. Working in the kitchen of my home in Texas, I slowly developed an arsenic water filter that could also filter bacteria from water at an affordable price. I designed my filter in such a way that the whole filter could theoretically be built using materials in a typical village home.

Throughout the process of working on this project, I had the privilege of meeting many people who supported me along the way. I met with Bob Perciaspe, who at the time, was the head administrator of the EPA. I also met with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who lent me his endorsement towards carrying on with my work, with the future focus of expanding into rural areas into Texas, which also include arsenic affected regions. And, to my huge surprise, I was invited to the White House and met with President Obama!

I am now working on implementing my design. I founded iKormi, a non-profit organization, with the goal of alleviating problems faced by the underprivileged, in which my primary focus was arsenic water poisoning. Using some grants and money I raised, I was able to start up a small water filter plant in Bangladesh which manufactures arsenic water filters according to my design, consisting completely of local materials, using local labor. The filters were being built at a tenth of the cost. In addition to the manufacturing process, I also was able to gain support of many influential people in Bangladesh, including the Minister (and former general secretary) of Bangladesh. While there is definitely a lot more work to do, I definitely look forward to expanding this operation to be able to serve a wide variety of people who need access to clean drinking water.

At Duke, I hope to continue with my work in Bangladesh through the wealth of opportunities available to students in terms of research and working abroad. I look forward to writing for the Duke Research Blog!

Thabit and Obama

Me and President Obama in one of the Bangladesh national newspapers!

Scents Are Key to Lemur Nightlife

LEMUR SUPERPOWER #457:  Some lemurs can safely digest cyanide in amounts sufficient to kill an elephant. Others can enter hibernation-like states to survive periods when food and water are in short supply. To add to their list of superpowers, lemurs also have especially keen powers of scent.

Buried in the nose of Fuggles the mouse lemur are specialized pheromone receptors that help her distinguish friend from foe in the dark of night, when mouse lemurs are active.

By Robin Ann Smith

If you could pick one superpower, consider taking inspiration from lemurs. Some lemurs can safely digest cyanide in amounts that would kill an elephant. Others can enter hibernation-like states to survive periods when food and water are in short supply. Still others have keen powers of scent, with the ability to find mates and avoid enemies in the darkness by smell alone.

Research by biologist and Duke Lemur Center director Anne Yoder suggests that the molecular machinery for sniffing out pheromones — much of which has gone defunct in humans and many other primates — is still alive and well in lemurs and lorises, our distant primate cousins.

Lemurs use scents to mark the boundaries of their territories, distinguish males from females and figure out whether another animal is friend or foe. When a lemur gets a whiff of another animal, specialized pheromone receptors in the lining of the nose transmit the information to the brain, triggering instinctive urges like mating, defense and avoiding predators.

The receptors are proteins encoded by a family of genes called V1Rs. First identified in rats in the mid-1990s, V1R genes are found in animals ranging from lampreys to humans. But the proportion of these pheromone-detection genes that actually functions varies greatly from one species to the next, Yoder said last week in a roundtable discussion hosted by Duke’s Science & Society program.

Randy the ring-tailed lemur scent-marks his territory. Photo by David Haring.

Randy the ring-tailed lemur scent-marks his territory. Photo by David Haring.

Studies suggest that as much as 90% to 100% of the pheromone-detection genes in humans consist of disabled pieces of DNA, called pseudogenes.

“Our pheromone-detection genes are so boring — we don’t have many of them, and almost all of them are broken,” Yoder said.

But in lemurs and lorises — whose ancestors split off from the rest of the primate family tree more than 60 million years ago — the proportion of pheromone-detection genes that is still intact is much higher.

In a study published this year, Yoder and colleagues analyzed the DNA of 19 species and subspecies of lemurs and lorises, looking for subtle differences in their V1R genes. They found that one group — the mouse lemurs — has the highest proportion of intact V1R sequences of any mammal yet studied.

To find out which genes are linked to which scents, Yoder and her colleagues plan to take DNA sequences from pheromone-detecting genes in lemurs, insert them into mice, and expose the mice to different scents to see how they respond.

An ability to sniff out the right mates — and avoid being seduced by the wrong suitors — may have served as a mating barrier that allowed lemur species to diverge after arriving in their island home of Madagascar, helping to explain how the more than 70 living species of lemurs came to be, Yoder says.

3D Storytelling of Livia’s Villa

by Anika Radiya-Dixit

blog1pic

Eva Pietroni is in charge of the 3D modeling project, “Livia’s Villa Reloaded”

Have you ever pondered upon how 3D virtual realities are constructed? Or the potential to use them to tell stories about architectural masterpieces built millenniums ago?

The 5th International Conference on Remote Sensing in Archaeology held in the Fitzpatrick Center this weekend explored new technologies such as remote sensing, 3D reconstruction, and 3D printing used by the various facets of archaeology.

In her talk about a virtual archeology project called “Livia’s Villa Reloaded,” Eva Pietroni, art historian and co-director of the Virtual Heritage Lab in Italy, explored ways to integrate 3D modeling techniques into a virtual reality to best describe the history behind the reconstruction of the villa. The project is dedicated to the Villa Ad Gallinas Albas, which Livia Drusilla took as dowry when she married Emperor Augustus in the first century B.C.

The archeological landscape and the actual site have been modeled with 3D scenes in a Virtual Reality application with guides situated around the area to explain to tourists details of the reconstruction. The model combined images from the currently observable landscape and the potential ancient landscape — derived from both hypotheses and historical references. Many parts of the model have been implemented in the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE).

Instead of using simple 3D characters to talk to the public, the team decided to try using real actors who talked in front of a small virtual set in front of a green screen. They used a specialized cinematic camera and played around with lighting and filtering effects to obtain the best shots of the actor that would later be put into the virtual environment. Pietroni expressed her excitement at the numerous feats the team was able to accomplish especially since they were not limited by rudimentary technology such as joysticks and push buttons. As a result, the 3D scenes have been implemented by testing the “grammar of gesture” — or in other words, the interactivity of the actor performing mid-air gestures — in a virtual environment. Hearteningly, the public has been “attracted by this possibility,” encouraging the team to work on better enhancing the detailed functionalities that the virtual character is able to perform. In her video demonstration, Pietroni showed the audience the Livia’s villa being reconstructed in real time with cinematographic paradigms and virtual set practices. It was extremely fascinating to watch as the video moved smoothly over the virtual reality, giving a helicopter view of the reconstruction.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 9.24.55 PM

Helicopter view of the villa

One important point that Pietroni emphasized was testing how much freedom of exploration to give to the user. Currently, the exploration mode — indicated by the red dots hovering over the bird in the bottom left corner of the virtual reality — has a predefined camera animation path, since the site is very large, to prevent the user from getting lost. At the same time, the user has the ability to interrupt this automated navigation to look around and rotate the arm to explore the area. As a result, the effect achieved is a combination of a “movie and a free exploration” that keeps the audience engaged for the most optimal length of time.

Another feature provided in the menu options allows the user to navigate to a closer view of a specific part of the villa. Here, the user can walk through different areas of the villa, through kitchens and gardens, with guides located in specific areas that activate once the user has entered the desired region. This virtual storytelling is extremely important in being able to give the user a vicarious thrill in understanding the life and perspective of people living in ancient times. For example, a guide dressed in a toga in a kitchen explained the traditions held during mealtimes, and another guide in the private gardens detailed the family’s sleeping habits. The virtual details of the private garden were spectacular and beautiful, each leaf realistically swaying in the wind, each flower so well created that one could almost feel the texture of the petals as they strolled past.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 9.24.39 PM

Guide talking about a kitchen in the villa

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 9.25.15 PM

Strolling through the gardens

The novelty of the “Livia’s Villa Reloaded” project is especially remarkable because the team was able to incorporate new archeological findings about the villa, rather than simply creating a system from old data without ever updating the visual aspects. Sometimes, as the speaker noted, this required the team to entirely reconfigure the lighting of a certain part of the villa when new data came in, so unfortunately, the project is not yet automatic. Of course, to ultimately improve the application, the team often queries the public on specific aspects they liked and disliked, and perhaps in the future, the virtual scenes of the villa may be developed to a perfection that they will be confused with reality itself.

 

See details about the conference at: http://space2place.classicalstudies.duke.edu/program/dive

Joining the team: Anika Radiya-Dixit

By Anika Radiya-Dixit

ProfileAnikaOct2014

Hello! My name is Anika Radiya-Dixit, and I am currently a sophomore in the Pratt School of Engineering, pursuing a double major in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

I have been interested in science and technology since a young age. My love for science and its integration with constantly changing electronic devices has propelled me to seek a deeper understanding of technology — both in theory and practical applications. I am most passionate about mobile development and entrepreneurship, and enjoy learning about advancements in Big Data and Internet of Things (IoT).

Throughout my high school years, I worked on several projects at various research laboratories in Stanford University, including understanding the advantages of adipose-derived stem cells for diabetic patients in a biomedical lab, as well as re-designing the Foldscope — a paper microscope to diagnose diseases — using concepts from mechanical engineering. Most recently, I worked for a startup project in the Silicon Valley on front-end technologies with Adobe’s Creative Cloud.

My passion for science and technology didn’t remain in reality — they spread to the world of science fiction and literature. I love reading, especially novels by A. Clarke, I. Asimov, R. Bradbury, J.K. Rowling, that pull the reader into a fictional world concocted so beautifully that sometimes I want to remain in those worlds forever. I also love creating such worlds of my own, and I enjoy writing poems, short stories, and novels in my free time.

My other hobbies include playing piano, composing songs, drawing, and tennis, and I look forward to being part of the Duke Research Blog!

NIH Getting Serious about the BRAIN

brain landing on moon

The NIH’s mapping initiative called BRAIN has been likened to a moon shot.

By Kelly Rae Chi

The federal government’s  BRAIN Initiative to chart the neural connections in the human brain and explain how its diverse and ever-changing cells make us who we are has been compared to landing a person on the moon.

Last summer the National Institutes of Health (NIH) described its vision as a 100-plus-item list of deliverables, proposed budgets and milestones. Last week, the NIH awarded the first round of seed money toward those goals — $46 million — some it for Duke scientists.

And this week, Gregory Farber, director of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Office of Technology Development and Coordination, visited Duke to talk about the timeline for the decade-long initiative.

Duke scientists in the audience peppered him with questions about how he sees it evolving.

“What I learned in Greg Farber’s talk is that the BRAIN Initiative offers a serious –and I mean serious — ten-year plan to catalyze game-changing discoveries in understanding the human brain, and in doing so, provide new treatments for disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease, that can rob us of our very humanity,” said Michael Platt, director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

BRAIN stands for ‘Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.’ It’s all about technology, and it will cost a pretty penny for its public and private partners. Fiscal Year 2014’s  $46 will develop a “parts list” for the brain and probe neural circuitry in a variety of ways. And that’s only the start.

The initiative is expected to begin in earnest in 2016, take five years for tool development and five more to apply those tools to study humans wherever possible.

“We have a strong sense that we want to see these tools have clinical applications in the not-too-distant future, but I’m being careful not to define ‘not-too-distant’,” Farber told a room full of neuroscientists, many of them working on human brain imaging.

Allen Song is a professor of Radiology, Neurobiology, Psychiatry and Biomedical Engineering.

Allen Song is a professor of Radiology, Neurobiology, Psychiatry and Biomedical Engineering.

In the audience was Allen Song, professor and director of the Duke-UNC Brain Imaging Analysis Center and among the first scientists awarded NIH BRAIN funds. He is leading a team that will further develop and validate a human brain imaging technique dubbed ‘NEMO,’ for Neuro-Electro-Magnetic Oscillations.

The hope is that NEMO, and other ‘next-generation’ brain imaging advances supported with the initiative, will help solve some of the limitations of today’s technologies. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), for example, measures changes in the levels of oxygenated blood in the brain. It’s an indirect way of seeing neural activity, and it comes with a several-second delay.

Used with traditional MRI scanners, NEMO will more directly tune into neurons, which naturally create waves of electrical activity in the brain at specific frequencies.

For example, “if this technology works, we can tune our machine to listen to the 10-Hertz oscillation in the brain as a result of neuron firing,” Song said. Then, by driving neurons into specific oscillations at different times and during different tasks, the scientists may be able to resolve the brain in better spatial and temporal detail.

Song said that although he’s excited and confident, he already feels the pressure of a tight timeline for the project. It won’t be possible to finish it in the three-year timeframe. Even with continued funding, at the end of 12 years, “we don’t know where we will be,” he said.

Still, Song and his colleagues were all smiles as they filed in for Farber’s talk. “It’s a thrill to see Allen Song and his colleagues win support in the first round of BRAIN grants to develop the next generation in human brain imaging technology,” Platt said. “I’m confident Duke neuroscience will figure prominently in the BRAIN Initiative, given our focus on interdisciplinary innovation and collaboration.”

No actual cartoon fish will be used in the NEMO project.

No actual cartoon fish will be used in the NEMO project.

Artistic Anatomy: An Exploration of the Spine

By Olivia Zhu

How many times have you acted out the shape of a vertebra with your body? How many times have you even imagined what each of your vertebrae looks like?

On Wednesday, October 1, Kate Trammell and Sharon Babcock held a workshop on the spine as part of the series, Namely Muscles. In the interactive session, they pushed their audience members to gain a greater awareness of their spines.

Participants assemble vertebrae and discs of the spine

Participants assemble vertebrae and discs of the spine

Trammell and Babcock aim to revolutionize the teaching of anatomy by combining art, mainly through dance, and science. They imagine that a more active, participatory learning style will allow students from all backgrounds to learn and retain anatomy information much better. Babcock, who received her Ph.D. in anatomy from Duke, emphasized how her collaboration with Trammell, a dancer and choreographer, allowed her to truly internalize her study of anatomy. The workshop participants, who included dancers and scientists alike, also reflected a fusion of art and science.

Trammell observes the living sculptures of thoracic vertebrae

Trammell observes the living sculptures of thoracic vertebrae

To begin the exploration of the spine, Trammell and Babcock had participants close their eyes and feel models of individual vertebrae to gain tactile perception. Trammell and Babcock then instructed participants to make the shape of the vertebrae they felt with their bodies, creating a living sculpture garden of various interpretations of vertebrae–they pointed out key aspects of vertebrae as they walked through the sculptures.

Finally, Trammell and Babcock taught movement: in small groups, people played the roles of muscles, vertebrae, and spinal discs. They worked on interacting with accurate movements (for example, muscles only pull; they cannot push) to illustrate different movements of the spine.

Interactive illustration of a muscle pulling vertebrae

Interactive illustration of a muscle pulling vertebrae

 

 

 

To complete the series, Trammell performed Namely, Muscles, choreographed by Claire Porter, on October 4th  at the Ark.

Duke Shaking up Basal Ganglia Research

By Kelly Rae Chi

Duke brain scientists are shaking up their field’s understanding of a part of the brain called the basal ganglia that’s sort of a crossroads for many important functions.

A simplified map of the pathways domamine and serotonin travel to the basal ganglia, the snail-shaped structure in the middle of the human brain.

A simplified map of the pathways dopamine (blue) and serotonin travel to the basal ganglia, the snail-shaped structure in the middle of the human brain.

Basal ganglia signaling is involved in movement, learning, language, attention, and motivation.  But this centrality also makes it  challenging to figure out how it works, said Henry Yin,  an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, and a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

As healthy mice collected food pellets delivered into a cup once per minute every minute for two hours. Yin’s team was recording the electrical activity of  neurons projecting to and from the basal ganglia.

Henry Yin is an assistant professor in Psychology and Neuroscience.

Henry Yin is an assistant professor in Psychology and Neuroscience.

Naturally, the mice picked up food less often as they became full and some of the cells that use dopamine to signal reward showed less activity.

But other dopamine cells became more active.

In a paper describing these experiments , Yin’s group proposed that the cells’ activity reflected not reward but what the animals are physically doing.

This was new and Yin became curious. Was there a direct relationship between movement and dopamine activity?

Using a different experimental setup with cameras and pressure pads, Yin’s group quantified mouse movements while recording neural activity. “What happens is that whenever there’s movement, (there are phases of) dopamine activity,” Yin said to a room full of fellow neuroscientists during a recent seminar at Duke.

Putting the mice on top of a “shaker,” a piece of lab equipment  normally used to gently shake tubes and dishes full of liquids,  they found individual dopamine neurons responded to specific directions the mouse was tilted on the shaker. The same was true for nearby neurons that signal using GABA, an inhibitory chemical in the brain.

Using additional methods for tracking motions of freely moving mice, the group has discovered specific sub-populations of neurons that respond to different aspects of movement, especially movement speed and acceleration.

The researchers have also created transgenic mice whose dopamine neurons can be stimulated using light. Turning on these neurons makes the mice move.

Yin is working on publishing these results, but he said there’s a lot of resistance in the field.  His work appears to be directly challenging the dogma that  dopamine is linked to reward. He says it might actually be involved in generating movements.

“Let’s say you’re drinking coffee and that’s a reward,” Yin said. “I record your neural activity, and it’s correlated with coffee. You might say it’s a coffee neuron. But that’s not true unless you can measure the movement kinematics and rule out other possible correlations. What we’re seeing is that, with no exceptions, the phasic activity of DA neurons is always correlated with movement.”

Yin’s work also challenges theories about why people with Parkinson’s disease, whose dopamine cells degenerate, often have trouble initiating movement, or they move more slowly than they mean to.

“If you’re a doctor, a neurologist, what you study is the rate model. That’s the textbook description,” Yin said. The gist of the rate model is that the basal ganglia is constantly putting the “brakes” on behavior, and when its neurons settle down, that allows for movement.  Parkinson’s patients can’t initiate movements, it’s thought, because their basal ganglia output (more specifically, the rate of firing in the inhibitory output neurons) is too high, producing excessive braking.

In contrast, according to Yin’s work, at least four different types of basal ganglia output neurons are adjusting behavior dynamically and continuously, to shape the speed and direction of movement.

When the activity of these neurons is constant, it reflects a stable posture, Yin said.  So he argues that the problem with Parkinson’s patients is not that their basal ganglia output is too high, but that this output is stuck in firing mode. The downstream brain areas required for postural control don’t get the right commands.

Nicole Calakos is an associate professor of neurology.

Nicole Calakos is an associate professor of neurology.

“Henry’s studies are really exciting because we’ve thought about this circuitry in one way for a very long time and his findings really cast a new light on those interpretations,” said Nicole Calakos,  M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology. “I treat patients with Parkinson’s disease and other diseases that involve this circuitry. It is interesting to consider this alternate view to explain the problems my patients face in doing their day-to-day activities.”

Calakos’ own research focuses on how learning alters signal processing by the basal ganglia, and how the signaling goes awry in brain diseases such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Duke researchers are finding compelling links between different behavioral states and specific long-lasting patterns of activity in the basal ganglia.

 

Duke Neuroscientist Teaching about This Week’s Nobel

By Kelly Rae Chi

Talk about great timing!

Jennifer Groh, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, is launching a Coursera course next week and a book next month — both devoted to the topic of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine which was awarded Monday.

This year’s Nobel went to three scientists who discovered the neurons responsible for our brain’s form of GPS, crucial for our ability to navigate a complex and changing world. And that’s the topic of Groh’s work, “Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Are.”

The cover of Jennifer Groh's new book, "Making Space."

The cover of Jennifer Groh’s new book.

In 1971, John O´Keefe of University College London had shown that certain neurons in the hippocampus — a brain area known for its role in memory — are active only when a rat is in certain spot in its environment. O’Keefe called these neurons ‘place cells.’

In 2005, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, partners in both marriage and science at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology in Trondheim,  described a region near the hippocampus in which cells became activated in a unique grid-like pattern as an animal moved through its environment. They dubbed them ‘grid cells.’

“O’Keefe and the Mosers made a discovery that I find endlessly fascinating — that a brain network closely tied with memory is extremely sensitive to one’s location in space,” Duke’s Groh said. “This suggests that our movements through the world play a role in helping us remember.”

Jennifer Groh

Jennifer Groh is a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience.

“Once you know this, you see the implications everywhere,” said Groh who is also a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. “For example, when you go to a college reunion and are roaming your old haunts, long dormant memories come flooding back.”

Groh’s new book, Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Are, explains more about how our brains convey a sense of location and direction.  In it, Groh makes the case that such spatial processing is inextricably tied to our ability to think and remember.

Her openly available Coursera course based on the book, “The Brain and Space,” starts Monday, October 13. To celebrate the Mosers and O’Keefe winning the prize, she made her lecture on the place cells available on YouTube.

Duke Undergraduate Research Society. Hit them up.

By Lyndsey Garcia

I have a confession: I have never personally been interested in performing research. I love to read, listen, and talk about research and latest developments, but never saw myself micropipetting or crunching raw data in the lab. But after attending the Duke Undergraduate Research Society (DURS) Kickoff, they got me to sign up for their listserve!

DURS Executive Board: (from left to right) Joseph Kleinhenz, Syed Adil, Lillian Kang, Dr. Huntington Willard, Sammie Truong, John Bentley

DURS Executive Board: (from left to right) Joseph Kleinhenz, Syed Adil, Lillian Kang, Dr. Huntington Willard, Sammie Truong, John Bentley

The kickoff highlighted DURS’s leading man, Dr. Huntington Willard. He was a biology pre-med undergraduate at Harvard for 3 years until he was introduced to genome research, which quickly became his life’s passion.

In 2002, Willard launched the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy at Duke, which grew to more than 100 faculty and 300 staff members. The institute unfortunately met its end this past June, but Willard continues his love and passion for genome research here at Duke, and with Duke undergraduate students.

Before creating IGSP, Willard had only interacted with medical and graduate students during his research. But at Duke he had his first opportunity to engage with  undergrads.

“The best thing at Duke is the undergrads and I wanted to take advantage of the best thing at Duke,” he says.

Willard explains his love for research by explaining the inherent differences between all Duke students and those Duke students who perform research. All Duke students love to learn and are interested in what they are learning, but Duke students who research are questioners. He says they want to know more than what is given in the textbook. They constantly go between B and C on the test because there could be valid reasons for both, but we just don’t know why yet. They aren’t afraid to delve into uncharted territories where there is no safety net of certainty.

Willard says many of these young researchers seem to follow his own motto: “This is so cool. I want to know how it works.”

Willard’s talk already had me inspired, but then I got to hear from the executive board of DURS. Each member explained the research they are involved with on campus and how they got there. They explained how they sent tons of emails to professors and received no responses and gave anecdotes about switching labs because it wasn’t what they wanted.

They also expanded on what DURS offers to undergraduates. The program connects professors and undergraduates for potential research positions, sets up workshops to help make networking contacts, pairs young undergrads with experienced undergrads to mentor and give advice, and helps one realize that no one came out of the womb with lab experience, so don’t be discouraged by not having any at first.

“This is exactly why I came to Duke. It’s a great university with amazing research opportunities and now I can’t wait to get started.” – Freshman Jaclyn Onufrey.

So my takeaway from Duke Undergraduate Research Society was:

1)      Are you interested in questioning the unknown?

2)      Do you want to be part of discovering something new?

3)      Don’t know where to start?

If any of those aspects apply to you, it’s definitely worth hitting up DURS!

An Intersection of Math and Medicine: Modeling Cancerous Tumor Kinetics

Anne Talkington with the MAMS function

Anne Talkington with the MAMS function

By Olivia Zhu

Anne Talkington, an undergraduate Mathematics student under the auspices of Richard Durrett, attempts to gain a quantitative grasp on cancer through mathematical modeling. Historically, tumor growth has only been measured in vitro (in a laboratory setting); however, Talkington looks at clinical data from MRIs and mammograms to study how tumors grow in vivo (in the human body).

Talkington is primarily interested in how fast tumors grow and if growth is limited. To analyze these trends, Talkington extracted two time-point measurements of tumor size — one at diagnosis and one immediately before treatment — and compared their change to a variety of mathematical functions. She studied unlimited functions, including the exponential, the power law, and the 2/3 power law, which represents growth limited by surface area, as well as limited functions, including the generalized logistic, which has an upper growth limit, and the Gompertz. Her favorite function is an unlimited function that she created called the Modified Alternating Maclaurin Series, or MAMS, which she originally intended to model microbial growth.

Talkington also examined various types of cancer: breast cancer, liver cancer, tumors of the nerve that connect the ear to the brain, and meningioma, or tumors of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. She expected growth rates among clinical groups to be constant, but she did not generalize between the groups due to demographic bias and other confounding factors.

Ultimately, Talkington found that breast cancer and liver cancer grew exponentially, while tumors of the meninges or vestibulocochlear nerve grew according to the 2/3 power law. Talkington’s work in model-fitting cancer growth will facilitate the administration of effective treatment, which is often growth-stage dependent.

The Mystery Behind the Camel Statue

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen

A file photo of the real Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, not the bronze one, standing with the enigmatic camel statue dedicated to him and his work.

By Olivia Zhu           

The camel statue between the Biology Building and Gross Hall is a staple of Duke’s campus, but the significance behind this landmark is generally unknown.

On Monday, September 22, faculty from the Biology Department gathered for a dedication to remember the man behind the camel statue (or rather, in front of it), Dr. Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, who died in 2007.

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, who would have turned 99 this Wednesday, was “the father of comparative physiology and integrative biology” and a James B. Duke professor at Duke’s Biology Department starting in 1952.

Schmidt-Nielsen studied the physiology of the camel’s nose, received the International Prize for Biology, and wrote the authoritative text on animal physiology.

Dr. Stephen Wainwright, who was present at the dedication, commissioned the camel to British sculptor Jonathan Kingdon, who finished the bronze camel statue in 1993. The inscription for the statue, “Tell me about yourself, Camel, that I may know myself,” encapsulates Schmidt-Nielsen’s outlook on physiology.

According to Dr. Steven Vogel, who was recruited to Duke’s faculty by Schmidt-Nielsen 49 years ago, Schmidt-Nielsen was actually shy and rather uncomfortable with the statue of himself. Vogel reported that Schmidt-Nielsen greatly advanced the zoology department with his high standards and “great charm and urbanity.”

“You could never say no to Knut,” Vogel said. Schmidt-Nielsen was also reportedly  “a very serious wine drinker”—accordingly, the dedication ceremony ended with wine and champagne.

To learn more about Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, read Vogel’s memoirs or a recommended autobiography, The Camel’s Nose.

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen

The statue as it appears now, with Knut in bronze. (File photo)